Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘Photography’ category

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-23

March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-20

I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.

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On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-2

There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-10

In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-15

Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.

Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-31

In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.

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Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.

Ebernoe Common, West Sussex, March 2019

See my Wealden archive

 

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SHW 23-25-1-18 djg-20

Unlike most annual reviews, this post shouldn’t include any reference to seismic political events which we are all likely sick and tired of. Instead, it’s a run through of some of the interesting mushrooms I’ve papped in the past 12 months. It also ends up being a seasonal review more than anything, because fungi is found mostly in the gentler bits of spring and the October-November phase before the cold weather snaps down. Expect references to camera equipment and a smattering of photography jargon that even I don’t understand.

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January, February and March 2018

There have been two things that have changed the nature of my fungi photos in the past year, one of them being the purchase of a compact camera. At the end of 2017 I bought a Canon Powershot G7X MII, a little camera that has allowed me to take photos of mushrooms in ways I couldn’t before.

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This is because of the camera’s small size and the screen that flips round so I don’t need to lie down on the ground. Most of the time it’s actually impossible because some of the smaller mushrooms (usually the most interesting and unique) are down in amongst other debris and you need a small camera in there.

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Another bonus is how light the thing is, though it has a bit of weight about it, it can be taken anywhere and charged off a USB. This means you can bring out a powerbank to charge it in the field or when trekking and you don’t need to spend £60 on batteries.

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Above are some of the early pics I managed to get with the Powershot in and around Sydenham Hill Wood in south-east London. I took the photos in raw format and refined them (just colours, exposure, sharpness and a bit of cropping in Adobe Lightroom) to bring them closer to natural life.

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Whatever you think of the photos, you’ve got to say they’re really sharp and as good as most Digital SLRs. I would say that if you don’t have a ‘decent’ camera and you want something light, portable and uncomplicated, it’s a great option.

SHW iceshrooms - 8-2-18 djg-2

However, one problem is the camera is so light it fell out of my pocket and I didn’t have it insured! I hope the person who found it is very happy with it. Anyway, back to the mushrooms.

July

Fungi - July 2018 djg-10

Early summer months are a time of bracket fungi on trees and sudden eruptions of inkcaps after rain and milder temperatures. Hot dry weather is not good ‘shroom time.

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It is, however, a time to appreciate the rock solid brackets that climb up the trunks of veteran trees.

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This hollow beech tree at Slindon on the South Downs is a fine example of a veteran tree, characterful and fungus-clad. I have to admit to not having a passion for bracket fungi of this kind, but I do know that these species enter through a wound in the tree and establish their mycelium (network of fungal fibres) and produce a fruiting body, in this case the bracket you can see above, and pump their spores into the air.

Fungi - July 2018 djg-6

One of the true highlights for people who forage wild food is the summer glut of chicken of the woods. This fungus is hard to miss and simple to identify when in good condition. It is mostly found on oak, though I found my first specimens on yew in 2018. Chicken of the woods on yew should never be eaten because of the poisonous nature of the tree. I’ve never eaten this fungus but a friend said that she got too excited about finding it ate too much of it last summer. A case of being bloated rather than sick. May-June is the prime time for this beast.

August

Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-19

August can be a very wet month in the UK. In 2017 it was rainy and cool and in the mushroom world autumn happened in August, with a much weaker season over the typical October-November period. I visited Epping Forest in August 2018 to see if there was any repeat of 2017, but there was a very modest fungal showing. This was due to the extreme heat between June and July with very little rainfall in southern England. It’s an example of how climate change will effect our ecosystems and the species within them.

Denne Hill - 27-8-2018 djg-19

This is not the moon landing, it’s a giant puffball! These monsters grow in grasslands and were once used as footballs. Though I don’t eat wild mushrooms I know it can be used to make puffball burgers. It’s one of those mushrooms that makes you think, what is the point of it? I suppose it has been kicked and thrown around for so many millions of years that its spores have spread widely and it’s become an evolutionary success.

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One fungus that does well in August and people struggle to cope with is oak bracket (though this specimen was on a veteran beech tree). This was an evening trip after passing it in the pouring rain on a group walk in late July. It’s one of the most photogenic shrooms and is full of macro possibilities! The above pic is taken with a wide angle lens.

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Using the macro here brings out the beads of water as the fungus exhudes the excess water from its pores. Can you see the figure reflected in the droplets? I’ll be back to visit the beech tree this fungus grows on next year.

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The closer the connection you develop with wildlife through observation, the more important the seasons become. Man-made climate change is messing with that but I still see the arrival of Russulas (brittlegills) as a key indicator of summer’s end and the first specks of autumn.

September

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Walking 5 miles on the South Downs Way in early September I was delighted to find a patch of boletes growing under an old yew tree on chalk. I had my now deceased compact camera to hand and snatched this photo. This elfish mushroom is probably Scarletina bolete. It has orangey-red gills and absolutely stinks. One upturned specimen was beginning to smell like a decaying animal.

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I managed to sneak in a visit to the New Forest in September, a place so good for fungi it’s illegal to forage it. I found this bracket mushroom growing on a pine tree on heathland. It looks like a certain political figure, but I mean that as no insult to this amazing natural phenomena (the fungus, not the human).

Cowdray - 6-9-2018 djg-1

August and September is a good time for the members of the Boletus family, home to the much sought after and munched Boletus edulis (otherwise known as cep, penny bun, porcini). The boletes are a diverse group. I think the mushroom above is a suede bolete. It looks like a biscuit sitting atop a rhubarb stalk.

Nymans - September-2018 hi-res-1

A strange find was this parasitic species called powdery piggyback fungus (brilliant name), growing on the gills of blackening brittlegill.

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I thought these were horn of plenty at first, but they also just look like straight-up dog poo.

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Cairngorms - September 2018 djg-2Towards the end of September I visited the Cairngorms and Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands. At Balmoral before a group hike I found what I think is Boletus edulis at the shore of Loch Muick. There are two sides to every shroom. The one with the sun, rain and loch behind is one of my fave pics of the year and was found, taken and left alone within the space of about 30 seconds. You can plan for all the amazing pics you want, but when it comes to mushroom portraiture (lol) you have to be ready at all times.

 

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In some Perthshire woodland outside Pitlochry my friend and I found some jelly babies, a first for me.

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Yellow staghorn was cropping up fairly commonly in September. This bunch was on a stump which gave the opportunity for my friend Eddie to help with the composition. Another favourite from 2018!

October

Ebernoe - 7-10-2018 djg-13

One of my new playgrounds in 2018 was Ebernoe Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. I had two full days over the autumn to explore Ebernoe (responsibly!) with my DSLR and macro lense. The mushroom above was found after about 5 minutes of searching one area that is quite open and heathy. The summer drought meant that mushrooms were not as abundant as perhaps they would have been after a wetter season and the ground here was very dry. This is taken with a macro lens and is lit with a small LED side light, alongside a lovely break of warm autumn sun.

Ebernoe - 7-10-2018 djg-28

I find macro photography to be meditative. Looking at such a fine level of detail on what is usually a stationary object is very calming. One thing I have noticed is that when you look closely at a mushroom you often find other life. In the photo above I was trying to get a pic of what I think is bleeding bonnet and only when checking the photo on my camera spotted the springtail crossing its cap. Springtails are invertebrates that are found in soil and damp, shady parts of woodland. They are key to a woodland ecosystem as detritivores (they recycle stuff), and part of healthy woodland soil. By that I don’t mean soil good for ploughing or food growing but as part of the natural make-up of soil which includes fungi, bacteria and invertebrates.

The Mens - 19-10-2018 djg (2)

Before the clocks went back in October I managed to visit The Mens in West Sussex (another special ancient woodland managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust) while the evening light was still there. For most woodland photography it’s vital to have a camera or lens that can deal with low light. The ISO needs to be able to go beyond 1600 without being too grainy I think. Luckily I have a camera that can do that. I also like to take photos at an aperture like f11 which gives more detail and a better depth of field than something like f2.8. Though wider apertures like f2.8 can give lovely isolated mushroom images. That’s photo jargon I know but it makes a huge difference when in woods.

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One way to get around this is to use artificial lighting. Sometimes a phone torch is good enough. The translucence of many mushrooms means that lighting can create all kinds of possibilities. The bonnet mushrooms above where photographed in very low light with cloud cover above the woodland canopy. I used a little LED light to bring them out against the dark woodland background.

Bonnet spores - Octoberr-2018 djg-1

The detail my camera’s sensor combined with the macro lens can produce is amazing here – to the left of the frame you can see spores being released from the gills of the mushroom. Amazing! On the right-hand side you can see them dropping out of the gills, eventually carried away on the air flow.

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I was really pleased with how this one came out, the moss ‘sporophytes’ add an extra element through their accidental lighting! You wonder where the idea for lampshades came from…

Dartmoor 2018 djg (6)

An October visit to Dartmoor gave the opportunity to explore the oak woods that make the south-west famous among those who care about Celtic rainforest. Dartmoor is known for its moorland but it also has extensive areas of ancient woodland. Some of this woodland is so boulder-strewn that there isn’t actually much in the way of substrate for fungi to spring from in the way it does in the Sussex Weald, for example.

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No mushroom season is complete without a fly agaric. We found some real beauties under some birch trees in a small slither of more typical beech woodland.

November

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Porcelain fungus is one of the most photogenic species due to the translucence of the gills and the slimey cap that catches the light so sweetly. It also fruits at a time when leaves are still on the trees, helping to produce the bokeh (light circles that blur in the background) where the light does get through. The most beautiful mushroom images are often taken from below in my opinion.

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Compare the above photo taken on the same tree early in October, compared with the more wintry version above that.

The tree host here is a fallen beech that is my go-to for photos. You can see some of the diversity in this video:

Ebernoe - November 2018 djg-20

A species I was interested to find was split gill fungus. It has a quite hairy exterior and grows like a bracket or polypore on dead wood. This one wasn’t easy to photograph and I’m not over the moon about the pic, but the bokeh in the background is nice. It was on the tree in the video below, another fallen beech:

Another part of the Sussex Weald that I visited is St. Leonards Forest in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a core part of the ancient wealden landscape in southern England. I walked about 8 miles in search of peak-season shrooms:

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These oysters had a look of the sun rising over a green hill, much like the emoji! I think they’re olive oysterlings.

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Yellow staghorn was going strong into the late-autumn. I used a side light to bring this one out in amongst the beech leaf litter.

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Fallen beech trees are becoming a theme here. This jelly fungus was common, as can be seen in the previous videos as well.

December

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December is a month of snow-white mushrooms for me. If it’s a cold month and there’s too much frost, the mushrooms will perish. December kept on message with recent years and was fairly mild all the way up until Christmas which meant some shrooms could fruit.

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Bramble stems often have oysterlings attached to them. At first they look like little white nothings but when you look at the gills, they’re beautiful.

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It’s also a good time to look for slime mould. Though not in the Kingdom of Fungi, slime mould is equal parts beautiful and disgusting. This is probably dog’s vomit fungus, Fuligo septica, famous for how it eats everything in its path:

I mentioned earlier those rogue springtails photobombing fungi pics.

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During the Christmas holidays expectations for shrooms are low but I go for walks regardless obviously. Above is a fungus that is a bit of worry for gardeners, it’s silver-leaf fungus, a species that usually suggests a tree is dead or dying. It was harmless on this already dead tree. A much bulkier springtail was taking interest in it, perhaps.

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My final fungal pic of 2018 was this lovely little bonnet, umbrella-like as it peeped out from the bark of a veteran oak tree.

Thanks for reading, wishing you many mushrooms in 2019!

p.s. insure your equipment!

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Cowdray - 12-2-2019 djg-14

Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.

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Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.

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The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.

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The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.

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When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.

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There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.

Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019

 

 

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Pulborough - 2-3-2019 djg-2

A winter walk around Pulborough in West Sussex, just inside the South Downs National Park. Despite last week’s record high winter temperatures, spring was still absent, bar the odd queen bumblebee and flowering primrose.

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For someone who can’t afford a massive telephoto lens (both in terms of relative biceps and cash), March is the best month to photograph birds. There are no leaves to block them and birds are busy as spring builds. This robin barely moved. The photo has been cropped.

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Let’s see him or her again… I tried to frame the robin against a silvery water body and the green moss of a tree behind. As in, I moved a bit to one side and crouched down a bit.

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The South Downs ridge hangs over Pulborough and gives an extra layer of interest to photographs that might, in counties like Essex and Norfolk, be a little more flat.

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The river Arun runs through Pulborough, a key wetland area in southern England. The sun came out in the afternoon to lift the atmosphere. The South Downs add their irrepressible magic even in shade.

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The silvery wetland areas of the Arun valley. This area was once marshland and has strong evidence of Roman activity and settlement, including a bath house.

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Pulborough Brooks is managed by the RSPB and has a large area of heathland at Wiggonholt Common in addition to the wetlands.  The South Downs veer into distance beyond the pines.

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I love the soft palette of a winter heath.

Pulborough, South Downs National Park, West Sussex, March 2019

 

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St. Leonards Forest, The High Weald, West Sussex, January 2019

Gunshots echo from St. Leonards Forest, while up here on the dank January heath, woodpigeons fail to settle in pine branches. Within their paddock the sheep in deep black coats are startled by the scuff of my camera strap on my shoulder. They lift their heads from grazing, soon returning to their business. One with a white beard and human face gazes back at me, old man of the heath.

A powder-white and gold mushroom has been uprooted and left on a feathery bed of moss, an image of early autumn in this sodden midwinter. On the stumps of felled pine trees cup lichens grow like green, towering cities. I read that because they are a partnership of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, they can’t truly be defined as a standalone species. Here they hold droplets of water like a precious stone in the top of a staff.

The birch bark is zebra-like in this land of deep purple, black and brown. The birches are routinely removed from heathland but to me they feel like a key part to it, a haven for many species of insect, a resource we seem no longer to know about. Every bit of this tree cut has a use for us: bark for firelighter, slippers, canoes and boxes; sap for sugary syrup; branches for brooms and spoons; wood for a fire. It follows us around and, unlike so many of our trees, is not facing an epidemic of imported disease.

Coming down off the heath, I walk up past a stream bed with alder trees climbing high to the canopy. They form dark clouds of branches and catkins at their tops. Alongside the track home holly woods stamp their permanent-feeling darkness. I turn to look left into a small break in that darkness. A silent sparrowhawk glides in touching distance of the ground, preying on blue tits that call in alarm. Those little things miss nothing until caught. It’s a reminder of how hard life is out here in January woods. It is eat, or starve trying.

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Thursley - 29-6-2018 djg-30

Thursley Common, Surrey, June 2018

I’ve recently moved somewhere new and with that comes an interaction with new landscapes. In the United Kingdom, a distance of 25 miles can open up entirely new experiences in the outdoors through the sudden change in soils, topography and local culture. I have moved further south into Sussex, in touching distance of a tangled web of counties (West Sussex, East Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire), communities and habitats. One landscape that feels closer than it ever did is lowland heathland, a landscape I’ve come to learn more about in recent months.

I now know that dry lowland heath has been drastically lost over the past 150 years and it is rarer than rainforest. It is a human-made habitat with intrinsic ties to a pre-industrial way of life where local people grazed their animals, cut and burned heather, extracted sand, cut trees, but were unable to grow crops due to the poor fertility of the soils. It is subject to epic conservation projects in some places, like the Heathlands Reunited project working across the South Downs, tipping into Hampshire and Surrey in places outside the South Downs National Park.

My family have roots in Ireland and I have spent time there learning about the way of life of people who lived in the wild and very wet western areas. To my ancestors heather was an incredibly diverse resource. It could be cut at the right age to produce all manner of items, most fascinating to my mind were lobster pots weaved from woody heather growth. The subsequent cutting of heather allowed new growth and light to reach the heathland, benefiting many different species – denser growth for ground nesting birds, increased flower abundance – and a mosaic of vegetation lengths which further the species diversity through the creation of micro-habitats.

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With the popularity of the rewilding movement in the UK, heathlands are a point of contention because an argument for landscapes to be left to ‘adopt their natural state’. This is at odds with the desire to see heathlands humanised again, what is shown to produce the richest conditions for their wildlife. Heathlands which are ‘left’ or ‘rewilded’ become simply poor quality woodland in the sense of the lack of species diversity.

One site stuck in that tangled-web of counties is Thursley Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Natural England in Surrey. I visited Thursley for the second time in June on a hot but mercifully breezy day. There were many thousands of dragonflies on the wing – so many I declined to ‘tick off’ the vagrant red-backed shrike which people were heading over to see but completely ignoring the riot of Odonata  – and the sandy paths were brimming with rare insect life.

Having visited Thursley a year before with a tour from the site manager, I had an idea of where the good stuff was and some background on their ecology. Over the winter I had looked forward to returning to try and photograph the heath sand wasp and mottled bee-fly. Thankfully the weather was perfect for this.

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Kneeling down on a sandy track it was possible to see the heath sand wasp, found only on lowland heath, mainly in the south of England. It was caching moth larvae that it had been hunting out in the heather. It’s hilarious how they use a small roll of sandy soil to close their doorway before heading off again to hunt on the heath.

They have every right to be cautious. Lying in wait on tiny scatterings of twigs were mottled bee-flies, a rare insect that parasitises the nest of the sand wasp. It wasn’t clear whether the sand wasp was wary of me or suspicious of the presence of the fly (do insects experience suspicion?) but at times the bee-fly deigned not to move, creating a kind of stand off between the two insects as the sand wasp waited to fly off to hunt and the bee-fly waited to hover and throw its eggs into the hole.

Sure enough, after the wasp had moved away, the bee-fly was hovering over the nest hole, chucking its eggs in like a footballer volleying the ball into an open goal.

These are two species which, without managed heathlands (interestingly much of the management they benefit from is the result of footfall exposing sand along the paths) would be lost. Woodland’s return would mean a loss of light, warmth and resultant heather growth where the sand wasp’s prey is found, meaning that the structure that binds these species would collapse.

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Another unusual insect along the paths was the hornet robberfly. This is another type of fly that can be found in heathland and is classified as rare. It is possibly the largest fly in the UK but it looks like a hornet. Like many of our flies (bet you don’t consider them your own) it mimics the appearance of a predatory wasp to give a greater sense of protection. In terms of natural selection, it has survived probably because it looks like a species that has a world-shattering sting at the tip of its abdomen.

Robberflies do exactly what their name suggests, they steal insects and eat them, sucking them dry in about thirty minutes in the case of the hornet robberyfly. The best way to see them is through a macro lens and to hang out somewhere that you know has lots of other insects present. Some stunning photos are out there with robberflies holding on to their fly prey.

I spotted the hornet robberfly because it was sitting on a pile of manure, exactly where it likes to spend its time in life. It was using the manure as a perch to hunt where it can blend in with the hay stems that a horse or cow can’t quite digest. They also lay their eggs in the crevices of the dung.

It was a privilege to see these rare species, unseen to almost everyone (obviously), only present because of good management and an appreciation that human impacts can be positive for living things other than ourselves.

 

 

 

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Woodpecker silhouette djg-1

This is an expanded version of an article that was first published in London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London magazine

It’s a sound that stops many in their tracks, the rattling in the canopy of woods, parks and gardens. It’s a sound that brings in the new year, signs of spring breaking through as our own seasonal celebrations draw to an end. While we are still deep in recognising our need to rest in the midwinter, our wildlife is busy setting out its quest for new life. Britain has three species of woodpecker and in January we begin to hear the hammering, or drumming, of the great spotted, the sound of male birds marking new territories. It’s a bird that is becoming more and more familiar to us in London as its numbers increase.

Its favoured habitat is oak woodland with plenty of rotting branches, trunks and limbs in which to create a new hole each year, ample habitat for the biggest of our two Dendrocopos woodpeckers, the great spotted. Dendrocopos translates from Greek as ‘wood-striker’.

One thing I have noticed in suburban locations is the woodpecker drumming on TV aerials and receivers. One great spot I’ve seen has found the plastic box now employed to improve TV signals makes decent percussion. It’s a wonder that this hammering on hard surfaces doesn’t cause the birds injury, but evolution has equipped them with shock absorbers in the back of their skulls that cushion the blow. It’s not the same as banging your head against the wall.

There are four members of the woodpecker family deemed native to Britain, with one now classified as extinct as a breeding bird. That is the wryneck (Jynx torquilla), a bird that migrates from Africa each spring in small numbers still. In 1904 a wryneck nested on south-east London, what was thought by the observer to be one of the last nests in his time, in south-east London historically.

Another of our four species has declined at a rate that has baffled ornithologists. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) was noted in south London’s woods up until 2008. The odd autumnal record does crop up as the lesser spots are migratory, with one seen in 2015 in Brockwell Park in Lambeth.

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Lesser spotted woodpecker

One possible theory for the decline of lesser spotted woodpeckers (above) relates to the rise of the great spot and the disappearance of starlings from London’s woods as a breeding bird. When starling numbers were higher in woods they provided more competition for great spots.

This gave more space for the lesser spots, being much smaller, about the size of a sparrow or starling. As starlings and their ruckus have left the woods, the great spots have increased in number as they have experienced less competition and adapted to the boom in garden bird food. Lesser spots require a smaller hole in a tree to nest and if a great spot chooses the nest they can make the hole bigger and the lesser spots are pushed out.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers, however, are not extinct like the wryneck as a breeding bird and they still have strongholds in the UK. The most important place for them is the New Forest, one of the mythical heartlands of ancient English woods. There the management of the woods has remained the same for centuries, pointing to another reason for the species’ decline elsewhere. British wildlife is under increasing pressure from development and the loss of available food due to wider intensified management of the countryside.

So the two factors which are most harming lesser spots, and starlings, too, are a lack of habitat and food. The loss of food is a loss of invertebrate life being driven by agricultural intensification and a tidying up of green spaces, loss of gardens and general overuse of harmful, residual pesticides. Another key change is the loss of old orchards, another traditional habitat disappearing in Britain, one of the lesser spot’s favoured habitats.

The other member of the British quintet, if including wryneck, is the green woodpecker (Picus viridis). Green woodpeckers are different to the spotted woodpeckers because they don’t hammer to mark their territories but instead call, what was known for centuries as ‘yaffling’. An old name for a green woodpecker is ‘yaffler’. It’s a call that can be heard most clearly in woods and parks with mature trees, where green woodpeckers also nest.

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Oak woodland is a key habitat for woodpeckers

The call has a prehistoric feel about it, echoing deep into woodland, as the reverberation recedes. Greens differ again from the spotted woodpeckers because of their feeding habits, spending their time searching for ant colonies in woods and lawns. Naturally grassy sports pitches with a surrounding area of mature trees are a good place to find the birds. They lie low, shooting their long tongues down into nests to find food. It’s something you are very unlikely ever to see a great spotted woodpecker do.

For those curious and unsatisfied by the array of woodpeckers in London, remember that you will have to travel to continental Europe to find a greater diversity. Arriving in France you could meet with the biggest of all the European woodpeckers, the black woodpecker and heading as far as the great ancient woods of the Czech Republic, Poland or Romania, you can find as many as seven species. In British terms, the health of London’s woodpeckers reflect the state of the nation’s.

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